Killings: The Inside Story
A former poacher
in Kaziranga reveals why the animal is being increasingly hunted
A RARE SUCCESS story
in India’s wildlife conservation record, Assam’s Kaziranga National Park,
home to the one-horned Asiatic Rhinoceros and a UNESCO World Heritage
Site, is struggling to come to grips with a spurt in rhino killings. Twenty
rhinos were poached last year, 14 of them inside the national park and
the rest in areas just outside the sanctuary. The forest department has
come up with the usual excuses of being understaffed and under-equipped,
but the retrenchment of casual workers in the park by the previous Prafulla
Kumar Mahanta regime, leaving scores without livelihood and angry at the
government apathy, has also played its damaging part.
One of those dismissed
workers was Golap Patgiri. Employed informally by the forest department
since 10 years, Patgiri’s monthly earnings of Rs 1,500 suddenly ran dry.
“We used to do everything, from patrolling to cutting grass. We assisted
the permanent staff in almost everything. I had once caught a poacher
red-handed,” he says. Suddenly jobless, Patgiri found himself under pressure
to join the ranks of the very people he had once battled: the poachers.
Killed in Assam in the past 13 months, 20 in
Died of natural causes in the same period
The price of a rhino horn in the
international market, mainly in China,
where it’s considered an aphrodisiac
“All of a sudden we
had nothing to do and there was a family to look after. It was difficult
to go back to our village and begin farming. As it is our village is ravaged
by annual floods and the crops are destroyed by stray rhinos and buffalos,”
rues Patgiri. Despite belonging to one of the village’s affluent families,
nobody was ready to engage him even as a daily wage labourer. “People
used to ask us instead if we had a job for them,” he says.
On the fringes of
the 900-sq km sanctuary is a small hamlet known as “Shikari Gaon”. Infamous
as a breeding ground of poachers till not long ago, the village is now
home to many surrendered poachers, some of whom work as informers for
the forest department. Patgiri is one such “reformed” outlaw, and besides
helping forest officials with information, he works as an activist for
a local NGO named “Dagrob – Eco-tourism and Eco-development Society”.
The Wildlife Trust of India has promised to help him set up a shop. Dagrob
means the “rising sun” and Patgiri and his fellow villagers are keen to
make a new beginning. One of Dagrob’s main activities is creating awareness
against poaching. Another is a campaign for economic empowerment of women
through building a cottage weaving industry. The NGO North East Social
Trust is assisting Dagrob in this endeavour.
Patgiri has one case
of poaching still pending against him, and he has to face the wrath of
forest department officials whenever a poaching incident takes place.
In Dhoba Ati Beloguri, Patgiri’s native village, his elder brother Holiram
Patgiri, a former CPI-ML activist, joins us. Pointing to his thatched
house, he laughs, “Can you believe it? We are just about 3 km from Bokakhat
town, yet we have no electricity or water supply. The only saving grace
is a primary school with a single teacher who caters to 115 students.”
How did his village,
inhabited by people from the Mishing tribe, come to acquire the infamous
epithet Shikari Gaon? Holiram says that the government used to grant gun
licences to villagers living close to the forest to protect themselves
from wild animals. The villagers were later asked to surrender the guns
when militancy broke out in the region.
MANY OF the villagers
had single and double barrel rifles. In fact, owning land, elephants,
buffalo and a gun were status symbols in our villages,” Holiram
says. “Most of our men were ace hunters and hunting a pig or a hare
was considered sacred during the festivals. But the rhino was never our
Holiram says many
of the poor villagers were lured into assisting the poachers who came
from Nagaland, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram. “These poachers
came with sophisticated weapons but could not operate without a guide
who knew the ins and outs of the forest,” he says.
There was a time when
15 such local “poachers” had surrendered and the forest department had
promised to pay them Rs 500 per month. Explains wildlife activist Uttam
Saikia, who is also the honorary wildlife warden of Golaghat district,
“But gradually the payment stopped and the officers stopped bothering.
There should be proper rehabilitation packages for the reformed poachers
like they have for the surrendered militants in Assam.”
An angry Holiram says
the forest department’s claim of being short-staffed is a lie. “If
they are understaffed, why did they fire those casual workers? Our boys
grew up among the wild animals in the forest. They can be much better
guards. Most of the present guards are so old they can barely hear or
see,” he says.
Wildlife expert Bibabh
Talukdar says community participation is imperative for dealing with poaching.
“The government should accord the highest priority to strengthening
intelligence. The illegal wildlife trade in Kaziranga is the second highest
in the country in terms of volume. If for Rs 10,000 the villagers are
helping the poachers the government should pay them Rs 20,000 to help
nab the poachers,” he says.
Talukdar points out
that between 1998 and 2006, rhino poaching in Kaziranga was controlled
effectively, with an average loss of only about 4-8 rhinos per year. Better
conservation efforts during these years had led to an increase in the
rhino population from about 1,550 in 1999 to 1,850 in 2006. But the gains
seem to be fast getting eroded given the spate of killings last year.